Pillars of Creation: My Level Design Process

Too "blue", throw it out, start again.

Too “blue”, throw it out, start again.

My level creation process is something that is constantly being adapted and tweaked. I wanted to jot down the process I tend to use when building a new level from scratch, and this process is usually the same if it’s in a professional or personal pursuit. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll be using an example of a single player environment in a story driven action game. A few things change between third and first person, but not so much as the below process needs to be completely reconsidered.

1. The Concept

Without some kind of boundaries and guidelines I’d probably spend forever rebuilding a space. Like a blank piece of paper ready to be drawn on, a new level has infinite possibilities to start with. We need to know a few things:

  • Location
    • Where is the level set?
      • E.g. A comms station in the Franklin Mountains, El Paso, Texas.
  • Premise/Theme
    • Otherwise known as the “razor”. What is this level all about?
      • E.g. “Broadcasting an SOS using an old comms tower.”
  • Major Goals
    • What are the players primary objectives and goals?
      • E.g. Reach the comms tower and start the signal.
  • Affects Gameplay
    • How does the theme affect the gameplay? Is it a chaotic level or quiet? What’s the expected tempo?
      • E.g. Urgent dash to the comms tower battling heavy resistance.
  • Mechanics Introduction [If required
    • What mechanics are introduced to the player in this level?
  • Exotic Gameplay [If required
    • What non-standard gameplay sections are included in this level?
      • E.g. Battling an enemy chopper at the top of the mountain.

We can do more with less sometimes, and we don’t want to be too prescribed early on but the above list is something that should take the smallest amount of time (usually most of it is already handed down by a senior team of directors, writers and designers).

Another caveat, hopefully you’re doing this with an already banked “vertical slice” or core experience ready. It can be incredibly difficult to develop a level while you’re also developing the mechanics of the game. Constant changes to your core flow will require retroactively adapting levels being built concurrently with a “vertical slice”.

With this knowledge in mind we can move to the next step.

2. The Mood Board

Not a huge amount of time spent here either but grabbing concepts and images of locations to help guide the tone/architecture of your level can help massively. If you’re building something in a real-world location (remember, you need permission to use some landmarks/buildings in a product!) then google images/maps is your best friend.

I like to base some parts of levels off of actual locations I have visited or artwork I have enjoyed. Get yourself to a gallery or go exploring with a camera sometimes instead of playing a game for inspiration, it will improve your work dramatically!

3. Blockout

You may have noticed I skipped 2D sketch. What I’ve found is that years of blocking out levels in 3D packages has made me much more proficient at quickly modelling a level than trying to draw it on paper. I don’t always skip 2D but I’d say for 90% of my levels I just jump straight into blockout phase.

With the portfolio of games I’ve worked on as well, verticality has been a large factor in the spaces I build. It’s just far more efficient to express these ideas in a 3D blockout than on paper. Also, the fact that you spend all your time for the rest of the project working in 3D, you might as well start getting good at blocking out a concept of acceptable quality, quickly.

Blockout

Built in Maya

In a professional environment, at all stages of the above steps, key stakeholders will be involved ranging from environment art and production to narrative and design. I like to pitch ideas to members of the team and begin collaborating as early as possible to find awesome ideas. The best ideas can come from anywhere in the team, so collaboration is an integral part to level creation in a studio.

After the blockout phase, at least on the last project I worked on, we pass blockouts to concept artists for any areas we feel will help assist the environment artists who ultimately model the level. It has also been common for environment artists to step in early, during blockout phases, so we can tweak areas early and get compositions, transitions and structures believable and correct.

The blockout phase is THE time to adjust the level. I have never shipped a level that looked exactly the same as the first blockout. During this phase I will be testing, tweaking and throwing out huge chunks of space. That’s why this phase exists!

The best bit of advice that was ever given to me regarding blockouts was “if you feel like you’ve done so much work that it would pain you to throw it all away, then you’ve gone too far“. Keep your blockouts light, a good lead or director will see past the untextured, rough shapes and see the ideas that need to be evaluated. (The space still needs to make sense however! Don’t take that as an excuse to become contrived).

4. Greybox

I’ve traditionally worked with two “blockout” phases. The first I’ve actually called “whitebox”, which is to evaluate the size and scale of volumes, objects and get some early composition, framing and high level beats. This is made out of mostly primitive shapes and can give a good indication of where the level is heading. After only a couple of iterations it can look close to the image above. As a level designer, I start to lock down areas I think work over the course of several weeks and iterate, iterate, iterate. Throwing away bad ideas, keeping new ones.

The next phase, known as greybox, is when we, the team, decide the level is sound from a design standpoint and can begin a more thorough art pass. My role here becomes more producer focused, while still building and testing gameplay. It’s important to ensure the key design ideas don’t get “lost in translation” as the level becomes more fully formed.

Greybox is harder to tweak and iterate, so we’d prefer to be in a place of confidence when this phase begins (but honestly it doesn’t always work that way). Changes can still be made in this stage, but they need to be meaningful and for the good of the game.

5. Final

This almost makes it sound too easy, but ideally after greybox we start to harden the level and bring it to final. Not all levels are brought to final at the same time, but at this stage it’s all about the polish. I’d love to say they’re all made this way, but the reality is with conventions, demos, publisher demos, reviews, tutorials and more it’s usually a bit more “seat of your pants” than effortless execution. The best games I’ve worked on were developed by passionate staff who did everything they could for the good of the game and that means juggling the sometimes hectic schedule of level creation.

tomb

Hopefully in the end it’s worth it (it almost always is).